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Fighting the Amazon Fires with Misinformation

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Celebrity Activists and Environmental Change

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amazonMany are alarmed by the recent sensationalized news of the Amazon fires in Brazil, demonizing current President Jair Bolsonaro for his destruction of this vital ecological hub (Pecanha et al., 2019). Celebrities are posting and presidents are tweeting: “stop the Amazon fires!” Adding to the social media fires, graphic imagery has the potential to sway perceptions of and provide (mis)information to casual Instagram or Twitter users about the burning Amazon. What they don’t know by looking at these posts, however, is that many may be geographically and factually inaccurate.

“The lungs of the earth are in flames,” exclaims actor Leonardo DiCaprio on his Instagram account to a staggering 35.3 million followers. The striking image he posted, which he frames as a recent photograph of the Amazon, is actually over 20 years old. A self-proclaimed environmentalist, DiCaprio argues these ongoing fires are propagated by one man, President Bolsonaro, and are a direct result of climate change. According to the Washington Post, however, only the forest fringes are on fire, and have been for at least the last decade because of illegal logging and deforestation (Penanha et al., 2019). Humans, not nature, started the fires. Using the age-old technique of slash and burn, economically-motivated farmers are preparing already deforested areas for planting. The high European demand for products like soy drives farmers to burn these forest fringes illegally to expand Brazilian cropland (Symonds, 2019). Brazil’s economy is based on such commodity exports, predominately from agriculture. With Brazilian unemployment at 12%, millions of people are struggling and “the country can ill-afford to back off one of its few thriving sectors” (Pecanha et al., 2019).

While bloggers and other humanitarians are worried about the destruction of the Amazon, some say they neglect the economic issues behind environmental concerns, such as the consumption habits that support illegal deforestation. Meanwhile, more and more people are going to social media for news (Suciu, 2019), finding celebrities like Cristiano Ronaldo, Madonna, and Ellen DeGeneres posting about Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Celebrity engagement can draw vital attention to issues that have long gone unnoticed. However, celebrities rarely study problems in depth, and can scarcely be counted as experts in controversial environmental domains. Many celebrities frame the Amazon forest fires as an environmental catastrophe that is exclusively the result of climate change. Erratic environmental conditions increasing incidences of drought are linked to climate change, and an increase in droughts does lead to more fires; yet the Amazon is not experiencing unusually dry weather (Dunne, 2019). Thus, many say the evidence points to humans as the cause of these fires, and not simply or mostly climate change. The result of this conflict over information and environmental judgment is an angered Brazilian population and a potentially misinformed global social media public.

Ironically, this celebrity focus on the Amazon fires has resulted in increased public interest in both climate justice and land preservation. Despite potential misinformation and oversimplification, the mounting international pressure has led to concrete action in the Amazon. Demonstrators are marching and Europeans are boycotting trade agreements in an effort to effect change in the Amazon and on the global scene (Andreoni et al., 2019). In response, President Bolsonaro has sent an unprecedented number of Brazilian troops to extinguish the fires (Silva de Sousa, 2019).  This seems to be a case where fake news, or at least hasty readings of a situation and its causes, are mobilizing the public and contributing to concrete change. Such pressure may be needed for other battles to save the Amazon, since funding for “Brazil’s main environmental agency fell by 20 percent during the first six months of this year” (Symonds 2019).

At the same time, the continued risk of fires on the fringes of the Amazon is not mitigated by simply putting the current blazes out. The expansion of cropland by slash and burn techniques is at least partially a response to foreign demand, and the economic suffering of the farmers pursing this mode of income. As long as the demand for beef and land-intensive crops such as soy stays high, so will the flames. Social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter allow for the instantaneous dissemination of news, well-sourced or not, to billions of people who may be motivated to solve an important problem without addressing, or even knowing, all of its causes. What happens when popular voices on social media help us address a problem that they seem to be misreading?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is fake news or misinformation that helps with recovery from or prevention of environmental harm always an ethical ill?
  2. What ethical responsibilities, if any, do celebrities have to their followers when spreading information?
  3. Should social media platforms be more closely monitored for incidences of fake news?
  4. Should social media platforms monitor celebrity accounts and those with large followings differently than those without?

Further Information:

Andreoni, M., Casado, L., & Londoño, E., “With Amazon Rain Forest Ablaze, Brazil Faces Global Backlash.” The New York Times, August 22, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/22/world/americas/brazil-amazon-fires-bolsonaro.html

Dunne, D., “Media Reaction: Amazon Fires and Climate Change.” Carbon Brief, August 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.carbonbrief.org/media-reaction-amazon-fires-and-climate-change

Silva de Sousa, M., “Bolsonaro Sends Army To Fight Amazon Fires Amid Mounting International Pressure.” The Huffington Post, August 24, 2019. Available at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/amazon-rainforest-fires-bolsonaro-sends-army_n_5d61677fe4b0dfcbd48e3c96

Suciu, P., “More Americans Are Getting Their News From Social Media.” Forbes, October 11, 2019. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2019/10/11/more-americans-are-getting-their-news-from-social-media/

Symonds, A., “Amazon Rainforest Fires: Here’s What’s Really Happening.” The New York Times, August 23, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/world/americas/amazon-fire-brazil-bolsonaro.html

Authors:

Michaela Urban & Dakota Park-Ozee
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 2, 2019


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Weather Media in the Public Sphere

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Weather Media in the Public Sphere

Dr. John Durham Peters

María Rosa Menocal Professor of English &
Professor of Film and Media Studies
Yale University

May 2, 2019



peters constable-cloud-studyOn its face, weather sounds like the most banal and mundane thing possible. Ordinary people look down on talking about it and journalists often regard it as the lowest kind of news. This talk aims to show that the accusation that talking about the weather is intellectually empty is hardly the case in the age of climate change, and even dangerous. The rise of weather as a topic of conversation coincides with the rise of the bourgeois public sphere. More broadly, weather is a key part of media history. The history of human interaction with weather is also a history of cultural techniques and media technologies. Dramatists and divines have sought meaning from atmospheric events. Reading the skies is one paradigm case of human-nature interaction, and studying weather can stand in as part for whole as an inquiry into the environments humans have made or unmade. The history of modern weather forecasting is also a history of the militarization of the sky and oceans, and is co-extensive with the history of modern telecommunications, computation, and reporting. Weather raises two questions of profound interest to recent media theory: how mundane infrastructures are full of meaning and how vaporous or evanescent entities can be tracked, recorded, and programmed. Talking about the weather is not dumb; it may be essential.

59356691_2477058322525680_2916580452397481984_nDr. John Durham Peters is a leading scholar in the area of media history, communication theory, and philosophy. He is the María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and of Film & Media Studies at Yale University. Previously, Peters taught at the University of Iowa between 1986-2016. He is the author a range of books, including Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition, and most recently, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. He has held fellowships with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Leverhulme Trust.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Media Ethics Initiative and Center for Media Engagement on Facebook for more information.


 

Green is the New Color of Money

CASE STUDY: Greenwashing and Advertising Ethics

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


Present consumers are caring more and more about the environment. Among 25-34-year-old Americans, 75% rank the environment among their top concerns. Not only are consumers more prone to purchase from brands making a “positive social and environmental impact,” but 72% of Generation Z (ages 15-20) respondents to a Nielsen study are willing to pay a premium price on those products.

The corporate response to this cultural shift has been to churn out product lines or change company values to be more “green.” In order to educate consumers about green initiatives, companies started to heavily market their efforts and actions toward being more environmentally sustainable and friendly. Some companies have gone as far as overstating the positive environmental impact of their products or business practices. This practice misleads consumers into believing that a product is more environmentally friendly than it actually is and is called greenwashing.

The practice of greenwashing often involves companies using buzz words such as “biodegradable,” “natural,” and “organic” to convey the message of greenness, even if that wasn’t the case. When a company exaggerates these claims, it can even run into legal trouble as showing an intent to deceive/mislead consumers. In the 2012 California case of Ayana Hill v. Roll International Corporation and Fiji Water Company LLC, the water bottle company was taken to task for claims that their bottled water was “environmentally friendly and superior.” While the “greenness” of the bottle was not disputed, many felt that this gain was overshadowed by the unemphasized fact that the manufacturing, production, packing, and distribution of the product causes “as much, if not more, of an adverse environmental impact when compared to similar bottled waters,” rendering it less than “green.”

Proponents of the greening—or “greenwashing”—of products would point to the relative gains that controversial marketing strategies might encourage. Many would argue that harsh criticism against companies working toward greener initiatives and products will discourage strides being made in the corporate world toward more eco-sustainable business practices. Slight exaggeration in advertising may be needed to convey the notion of potential impact to the consumer. Supporters could point to the use of green words such as “natural,” “organic,” “eco-friendly,” as encouraging consumers to look for more environmentally friendly products, even if their product is only slightly greener than the non-green alternative. Audrey Holmes of Earth911 goes as far to say “the best way greenwashing is helping our society change over time is by making sustainability a normality” (Holmes, 2017). By arguably over-emphasizing the green-ness of a specific product, companies are at least bringing the environmental dimension of purchases to the foreground of a consumer’s purchasing decisions, and even altering the status-quo. Proponents argue that the shifting ethos to greener living is worth the cost of some hypocrisy. While some of these green products over-sell their environmental benefits, not all do—and such marketing will result in some of these better products being clearly identified and purchased by consumers.

Critics of greenwashing point to this intention of “going green” as a deceptive way to increase business profits rather than as a way of fulfilling any duty to the environment.  When the intention behind the product’s “green-ness” is to increase sales, businesses may be sacrificing the environmentally positive aspects of a product for the marketability or cost-efficiency of producing it. The more money businesses put into marketing their “green-ness,” the less money they put toward environmentally sustainable efforts.  In practice, this leads to businesses putting on a front of being eco-friendly while still practicing environmentally unsustainable practices such as polluting or lobbying against environmentally forward laws. This, in end, places the burden on the consumer to distinguish between authentic environmentally friendly companies and those just putting on a facade. David Mallen, associate director of the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, notes that “because green advertising is so ubiquitous now, there’s so much greater potential for confusion, misunderstanding, and uncertainty about what messages mean and how to substantiate them” (Dahl, 2010). The confounding messaging has left a vacuum in the consumer trust in the information they receive from companies. Greenpeace, one of the most prominent groups leading the charge against greenwashing, argues that “the average citizen is finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between those companies genuinely dedicated to making a difference and those that are using a green curtain to conceal dark motives” (Moss & Scheer).

As more and more companies find that green sells, more products will be touted as helping the environment—or at least as not harming it as much as competing products. But how far can companies go in creatively selling their products without trashing their consumer’s autonomy?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict over the use of greenwashing in this case study?
  2. To what extent should companies be allowed to tout their green marketing efforts?
  3. What does it mean to deceive a company’s consumers? Are companies expected to forgo their exaggerated claims to guarantee transparency for the consumer?
  4. What sort of ethical principles could you create that would guide advertisers in balancing creativity, persuasive messaging, and respect for the consumer’s autonomy? Would these work in subtle cases of spin or exaggeration?

Further Information:

Capital Flows. “Greenwashing”: Deceptive Business Claims of “Eco-Friendliness.” Forbes. March 20, 2012. Available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/03/20/greenwashing-deceptive-business-claims-of-eco-friendliness/

Clarke, Richard A., Stavins, Robert N., Greeno, J. Ladd, and Schot, Johan. “The Challenge of Going Green.” Harvard Business Review. July 1994. Available at https://hbr.org/1994/07/the-challenge-of-going-green

Dahl, R. “Green Washing.” Environmental Health Perspectives. June 1, 2010. Available at https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.118-a246

Holmes, A. “Can Greenwashing Ever Be Good?” Earth911. August 9, 2017. Available at https://earth911.com/business-policy/greenwashing-good/

Mintel. “Green Marketing.” Mintel, April 2011. Available at http://academic.mintel.com/display/574850/

Moss, Doug and Scheer, Roddy. “How Can Consumers Find Out If a Corporation Is “Greenwashing” Environmentally Unsavory Practices?” Scientific American, Earth Talk. (n.d.) Available at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/greenwashing/

Nielson. “Green Generation: Millennials Say Sustainability is a Shopping Priority.” Nielsen, November 5, 2015. Available at https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2015/green-generation-millennials-say-sustainability-is-a-shopping-priority.html

Authors:

Sharmeen Somani & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 30, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Limiting or Lifesaving?

CASE STUDY: Anti-Vax Censorship on Social Media

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


avc

Anti-vaccination advertisement from U.S. Newspaper, 1902

Freedom of speech is arguably the most valued right granted in the American constitution, but how should it be limited in speech that potentially affects the health of communities and individuals? This controversy has recently hit the world of social media in regard to the growing number of “anti-vax” groups, or communities of parents concerned about the supposed dangers of vaccinating their children. As the online presence of anti-vaccine messages continues to increase—and potentially threatens the health of children and communities—the calls for limiting the reach of such messages have grown louder.  Should communication asserting messages that seem to be wrong, unhelpful, or potentially harmful be censored or “deplatformed” by private social media companies?

Many are worried about anti-vax messages and content because they seem to risk undoing the many gains of vaccination programs. With the recent surge of measles cases this year after declared nationally eliminated in 2000 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018), the need for widespread vaccination is seemingly more evident than ever.  It is very possible for diseases we thought dead to society to return if vaccination rates decline, and with a strength we would not be equipped to handle without large scale immunity.  Anti-vax groups typically express messages about the supposed danger associated with immunization, and thus contribute to such risks by convincing many to refrain from vaccinating themselves or their children.  To make matters worse, those who choose not to get vaccinated are not only risking hurting themselves, but also those around them. Declining rates of vaccinations decrease what’s called “herd immunity,” an epidemiologic term that refers to the resistance a population, including those who cannot be vaccinated such as those with autoimmune diseases, has to the spread of a certain disease if enough people are protected against it (Young, 2018).

The need for herd immunity, as well as concerns about the lack of scientific support for anti-vax messages, has prompted many social media outlets to restrict anti-vax content. For instance, Pinterest, online hotspot for sharing creative inspiration, has removed search results for the key word “vaccine” because of the influx of anti-vax articles (Thompson, 2019), YouTube has pulled advertisements and recommended videos related to incorporating anti-vax into parenting (Sands, 2019), Amazon has removed anti-vax documentaries and ads from Prime Video (Spangler, 2019), and Facebook is working to place lower priority on anti-vax search results and removing related groups from those recommended to users (Cohen & Bonifield, 2019).  These actions appear justified to many, since the World Health Organization just labeled vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 health threats of 2019.  Many believe that censoring or “deplatforming” seems to be the safest option for protecting the public, as erasing the materials will prevent such messages from affecting individuals’ decision-making.

Some might worry that these efforts to suppress the posting and spread of anti-vax content go too far. Shouldn’t people have control of their decision making, a skeptic might ask?  This includes one’s decision to publish, view, and internalize anti-vax information. Social media is a crossroads for opinions on every subject—many of which seem incoherent and harmful to some segments of the population—so prohibiting one side of the vaccine debate might seem unproductive. There is also the concern about how to go about identifying “anti-vaxxer” content. YouTube describes anti-vax videos as content that violates the platform’s guidelines against “dangerous and harmful” content. Yet, the definition of dangerous and harmful can vary, and it is unclear that espousing an unscientific position is immediately dangerous. While some anti-vax materials may be exhibiting false scientific information, others may be simply expressing one’s point of view or skepticism.  Additionally, information may be published regarding a religion or ideology’s reasoning for avoiding immunization that could be educational for followers or outsiders, at least in terms of informing them of why certain groups don’t support vaccination efforts. Social media efforts to censor anti-vax content quickly begin to look like efforts to sort religious or political views out by their alleged consequences. This relates to an abiding concern about censoring or stopping speech that some find objectionable or harmful—who judges these facts, and what errors are they prone to make?  As Marko Mavrovic of the Prindle Post warns, “Once you no longer value free speech, it becomes much easier to justify eliminating speech that you simply disagree with or believe should not exist.” Beyond these worries are the concerns about unintended consequences: by removing or obscuring anti-vax content, social media might only provide anti-vaxxers with more “evidence” that powerful interests are trying to stop their messages about vaccines: “Demonetizing videos is likely to only affirm anti-vaxxer beliefs of being persecuted, making them more difficult to reach” (Sands, 2019).  This could diminish any hope of changing the minds of anti-vaxxers.  Additionally, the anti-vax censorship attempts thus far have been less fruitful than predicted, calling into question whether this movement is worth the effort.  In analyzing the effects of suppression efforts, CNN recently reported that “misinformation about vaccines continues to thrive on Facebook and Instagram weeks after the companies vowed to reduce its distribution on their platforms” (Darcy, 2019).

It seems to be the consensus of scientists and experts that vaccines help many more than they risk harming, and that ensuring only true information about their effectiveness helps to create a healthy society. But how do we proceed down the road of deplatforming, limiting, or banning a certain sort of content without censoring content that is more reasonable or nuanced, stymieing unpopular opinions that might turn out to be right or somewhat correct, or leading to further backlashes by those censored?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the central values in conflict over the decision to deplatform or suppress anti-vaccination content on social media?
  2. Is this primarily a legal or ethical controversy? Explain your reasoning.
  3. Do you agree with attempts to deplatform certain speakers and messages from popular social media outlets? If not, would you suggest other courses of action to combat anti-vaxxer content?
  4. How might social media platforms deal with speech that seems to threaten public health while still valuing free speech?

Further Information:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, February 5). “Measles History.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: www.cdc.gov/measles/about/history.html.

Cohen, E. and Bonifield, J. (2019, February 26). “Facebook to Get Tougher on Anti-Vaxers.” CNN, Cable News Network. Available at: www.cnn.com/2019/02/25/health/facebook-anti-vaccine-content/index.html.

Darcy, O. (2019, March 21). “Vaccine misinformation flourishes on Facebook and Instagram weeks after promised crackdown.” CNN. Available at: www.cnn.com/2019/03/21/tech/vaccine-misinformation-facebook-instagram/index.html.

Mavrovik, M. (2018, September 18). “The Dangers and Ethics of Social Media Censorship.” The Prindle Post. Available at: www.prindlepost.org/2018/09/the-dangers-and-ethics-of-social-media-censorship/.

Sands, M. (2019, February 25). “Is YouTube Right to Demonetize Anti-Vax Channels?” Forbes Magazine. Available at: www.forbes.com/sites/masonsands/2019/02/25/is-youtube-right-to-demonetize-anti-vax-channels/#22f30f0014ce.

Spangler, T. (2019, March 2). “Amazon Pulls Anti-Vaccination Documentaries from Prime Video after Congressman’s Inquiry to Jeff Bezos.” Variety. Available at: www.variety.com/2019/digital/news/amazon-pulls-anti-vaccination-documentaries-prime-video-1203153487/.

Thompson, H. (2019, March 8). “Pinterest’s Block on Anti-Vaccination Content.” The Prindle Post. Availabe at: www.prindlepost.org/2019/03/pinterest-block-anti-vaccination-content/.

World Health Organization. (2013, February 19). “Six Common Misconceptions about Immunization.” World Health Organization. Available at: www.who.int/vaccine_safety/initiative/detection/immunization_misconceptions/en/index2.html.

Young, Z. (2018, November 28). “How Anti-Vax Went Viral.” Politico. Available at: www.politico.eu/article/how-anti-vax-went-viral/.

Authors:

Page Trotter & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 9, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Weather Media in the Public Sphere

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


Weather Media in the Public Sphere

Dr. John Durham Peters

María Rosa Menocal Professor of English &
Professor of Film and Media Studies
Yale University

May 2 (Thursday) ¦  1:30-3:00PM  ¦  BMC 5.208


jdp IKKM photo 2018On its face, weather sounds like the most banal and mundane thing possible. Ordinary people look down on talking about it and journalists often regard it as the lowest kind of news. This talk aims to show that the accusation that talking about the weather is intellectually empty is hardly the case in the age of climate change, and even dangerous. The rise of weather as a topic of conversation coincides with the rise of the bourgeois public sphere.  More broadly, weather is a key part of media history.  The history of human interaction with weather is also a history of cultural techniques and media technologies. Dramatists and divines have sought meaning from atmospheric events. Reading the skies is one paradigm case of human-nature interaction, and studying weather can stand in as part for whole as an inquiry into the environments humans have made or unmade. The history of modern weather forecasting is also a history of the militarization of the sky and oceans, and is co-extensive with the history of modern telecommunications, computation, and reporting. Weather raises two questions of profound interest to recent media theory: how mundane infrastructures are full of meaning and how vaporous or evanescent entities can be tracked, recorded, and programmed.  Talking about the weather is not dumb; it may be essential.

51zPF50pI0L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Dr. John Durham Peters is a leading scholar in the area of media history, communication theory, and philosophy. He is the María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and of Film & Media Studies at Yale University. Previously, Peters taught at the University of Iowa between 1986-2016. He is the author a range of books, including Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition, and most recently, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. He has held fellowships with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Leverhulme Trust.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Media Ethics Initiative and Center for Media Engagement on Facebook for more information.

Media Ethics Initiative events are free and open to the public.


 

The Ethics of Climate Change Communication

There are many important decisions to be made in how we communication about climate change. What is unhelpful with appealing to a scientific consensus as a way to persuade others to hold your views on climate change? How should we argue with others on this heated topic? Watch the video below to see how Dr. Jean Goodwin (North Carolina State University) addressed these pressing issues in her Media Ethics Initiative talk.

 

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